03 August 2016

BEHAVIOUR - Dominance in Domestic Dogs: Origins of the Theory

The question of how to create healthy, sustainable, mutually beneficial interspecies relationships between humans and pet dogs is critical for pet owners, vets, breeders, trainers, and anyone who works with either end of the leash.

Which species’ social behaviours take precedence? Are humans the alpha of a canine pack, or are dogs the fur children in a human family? Could it be both? Or neither?

And, critically, which approach leads to the most positive outcomes for both species in the partnership?

One prevailing paradigm is that of “dominance,” which is the idea that a human-canine relationship depends on a linear hierarchy and constant vigilance to maintain the hierarchy.

This understanding of human-canine partnership stems from Rudolph Schenkel’s observations of captive wolves in the 1940s and 1950s. The assumption that these observed wolf pack hierarchies and behaviours could (and should) be translated into human-dog interactions formed the foundation for early dominance-based training.

In early wolf studies, the “alpha wolf” was thought to be in constant competition with wolves lower in the hierarchy. This translated tidily over to dog training and ownership, and resulted in training methods that emphasized the need to put, and keep, dogs in their place.  

However, these early studies looked solely at wolves in captivity, and researchers have since discovered that wild wolves, behaving in more natural and instinctive ways, do not have the same heavily dominance-focused conflict. Instead, wild wolf packs are made up of family groupings.

Social dominance is still a factor, and is found in most animals living in groups, but it is much more complex and nuanced than the simplistic idea of a rigid linear hierarchy. Social dominance is often situational, and is more about the relationship between animals than the individual animal.

It took decades to advance the understanding of wolf behaviour from an imperfect interpretation of wolves as a species based on their behaviour in captivity, to a still imperfect understanding based on observations of wolves in the wild.

And research on domestic dogs has been even slower. There are unique challenges faced by researchers of domestic dog behaviour, and although research continues, it is far from complete.

What researchers have found is that dogs and wolves have distinct behaviours. Despite their genetic similarities and a common genetic ancestor with wolves, domestic dogs are a species apart and their willingness to look to humans for help is deeply ingrained.

Researchers are also beginning to look closely into what social dominance among dogs looks like, and how it operates.

This research, both in wolves and domestic dogs, is important.

It informs training protocols and enhances human understanding of canine behaviour and of the human-canine relationship.

Researching intra-species behaviour is helpful, but doesn’t necessarily answer the question of how best to form inter-species relationships with pet dogs.

Mapping the early understanding of wolf-in-captivity dominance behaviour onto human-canine relationships is still common practice for many dog owners and professionals. This has resulted in advice such as always eating before your dog, going through doors before your dog, not allowing your dog on the bed or to be elevated above you (on top of the couch, for example).

The next article in this series will look at these dominance-based training methods – who uses them, who doesn’t, and why. Part three will discuss alternatives to the dominance model.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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